Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue has been called the father of progressive radio. As a deejay and executive at San Francisco radio stations KMPX and KSAN in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Donahue pioneered “free form” radio on the largely ignored FM band and revolutionized radio broadcasting in America. A Rolling Stone article that he wrote in 1967 bore the headline, “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.” As Rolling Stonenoted in 1969, “Donahue was the moving force behind the transition of KMPX-FM [in 1967] from a foreign-language outlet into the country’s first full-time album-cut, hip-sounding station.”
Donahue started out in 1949 as a deejay at WTIP in Charleston, South Carolina. He worked at WIBG in Philadelphia and WINX in Rockville, Maryland, before moving to San Francisco in 1961, where he began deejaying at Top Forty station KYA. Donahue took KYA to the top of the ratings, beginning each show with his trademark line, “Here to blow your mind and clean up your face.” He left radio in 1965 to run a record label and produce concerts, but by 1967 Donahue clearly saw the need for stations that would play non-commercial music by album-oriented bands like the Doors, Blue Cheer and the rising lights on the San Francisco scene. He convinced the owners of KMPX to beginning playing album-oriented rock without playlists 24 hours a day, and thus did the underground rock radio revolution begin. A large man, he had a deep voice “that rolled from his throat like thick oil pouring from the can,” according to journalist Joel Selvin. His commanding, no-nonsense delivery and anti-establishment mindset endeared him to the San Francisco counterculture. In 1968, he moved from KMPX to KSAN, where he encouraged deejays to program their own shows with music from different eras and genres and to build sets around themes, interspersed with political commentary.
Donahue and his wife Raechel – herself a popular and influential disk jockey – founded four of the first free-form stations on the West Coast: KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco and KMET and KPPC in Los Angeles. The progressive format that the Donahues pioneered spread around the country. In the words of fellow deejay Jim Ladd, “He was the first to strike the tribal drum.” In addition to his work in radio, Donahue and partner Bob Mitchell founded a San Francisco-based record label, Autumn records (whose roster included the Beau Brummels, Sly Stone, Bobby Freeman, and the Mojo Men); opened the first psychedelic nightclub, Mothers; and produced concerts, including the Beatles’ last live performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966.
In 1972, Donahue was made general manager of KSAN, where he remained until his death from a heart attack in 1975. Raechel Donahue remains active in radio and journalism to this day.